I used to have a tape of songs from Hollywood movies that I would listen to in the car and at one point I developed a theory that the difference between good and bad art could be summed up by the difference between Al Jolson singing Mammy and Gene Kelly singing Singing in the Rain (I was doing a lot of driving at the time). Jolson is all ham and razzmatazz, he tries so hard to show you he really means it that I always feel like he doesn’t mean a word of it and by the time he slows right down to sing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles (big gulp) my ma (big swoop) aaa mmy (pointless flourish on last note)” you feel like crying for all the wrong reasons. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is so light that he leaves space for the listener (or viewer if you’re watching the film) to share the experience, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.
I have been reminded of this by the publication of a fascinating sounding book called Michelangelo’s Finger by Raymond Tallis. In it, Professor Tallis discusses why pointing, so apparently simple, is actually an incredibly complicated and transcendent act. I half-heard him talking about it on Start The Week while I was getting ready to leave for work a few weeks ago, and then came across a mention of the book in The Guardian a little later. The central thesis of the book, as I understand it, is that, although the act of pointing is apparently simple, it is an incredibly complicated and culturally vital activity. What caught my ear on the radio was Tallis’s notion that the act of pointing implies that the person who sees you pointing will understand that there is something of interest to look at and that this implies a shared sense of culture, which defines humanity. I remember hearing Stephen Fry point out the futility of pointing in the direction of a thrown stick to a dog because the dog will look at the finger rather than the stick, but it had never occurred to me how important this is. Imagine, every time you point at something, you are confirming your humanity by placing your self in a transcendent “other” place.
I love the idea that the essence of humanity can be iterated by such a simple action. It seems to me that art, at its best, tells us something about how we live. Bad art merely tries to provoke an emotion in the passive viewer/listener/reader, good art provokes a stream of thoughts and sensations the end result of which may or may not be emotional. In rehearsals or in preparing a production, we are often trying to find the simplest and most direct ways to communicate ‘the thing’ that the play is about (and discovering what ‘the thing’ is in the first place is one of the hardest parts of the process). Many of the greatest plays find an apparently simple metaphor that perfectly captures a more complex idea (the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Willie Loman’s job as a salesman), but the idea that our innate humanity can be summed up by one gesture is so breathtakingly, beautifully simple that it takes my breath away in the way that Al Jolson never could.